Moving from the Military to Business School

For veterans, business school can be an affordable, and worthy, investment.

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With Memorial Day upon us, it seems fitting to take a look at one special group of b-school students: war veterans. In fact, my very first client, many years ago, was in the military. Despite having a 540 GMAT, he was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management. In all, our military clients have consistently done quite well, often despite having low test scores.

Military applicants tend to blow other candidates out of the water, figuratively speaking, because they have a wealth of experience to draw from at a very young age. While many b-school hopefuls can only speak to sitting in cubicles, crunching numbers for the boss, these veteran applicants have had to deal with highly stressful situations, think on their feet, make ethical decisions, and lead important projects.

Veterans automatically know how to work in a team and they have respect—an important characteristic for business school students. The top M.B.A. programs value this type of experience because it gives the applicants a real-world maturity and a unique perspective during classroom discussions that others are lacking.

[Read more about M.B.A.s and leadership.]

In recent years, b-schools have beefed up their efforts to attract veterans. A funding increase in the post-9/11 G.I. Bill (a bill that provides financial assistance for housing and education to servicemembers), as well as the launch of the Yellow Ribbon Program, have helped make a dent in M.B.A. tuition, which can be prohibitively expensive for veterans lacking income from several years at a traditional job.

The Yellow Ribbon Program allows U.S. universities to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund tuition expenses that exceed the highest public, in-state undergraduate tuition rate. The institution can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses and the government will match the same amount as the institution.

So which programs are the most military friendly? According to Military M.B.A., an education and employment network for military officers interested in pursuing this degree, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Cornell University's Johnson School of Management, Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business rank as the top five "best value schools."

The results weigh the amounts of tuition waived for veterans against the U.S.News & World Report ranking of M.B.A. programs. The study aims to help veterans by providing a more comprehensive look at business schools than mainstream magazine ranking systems, which are geared toward traditional, not military, M.B.A. students.

The Tuck School of Business leads the pack because, according to the review, 80.4 percent of a veteran's tuition at Tuck is covered. But veterans who meet certain qualifications for the Yellow Ribbon Program—including, in part, 36 months of active duty service—often have all costs covered, Diane Bonin, director of financial aid at Tuck, noted in a story in The Dartmouth last year.

[Learn more about paying for business school.]

In October, veterans who are currently pursuing or have already earned an M.B.A. from a qualifying top-ranked program are invited to participate in the 2011 M.B.A. Veterans Career Conference. This annual conference was established in 2008 by two former U.S. Army officers and second year M.B.A. students. It aims to connect current M.B.A. students who are former military personnel with recruiters from leading companies in order to establish a community for M.B.A. students and alumni who share a common background. Many companies consider the event a premiere recruiting venue, and one recruiter calls officers and enlisted candidates the closest one can get to a "100 percent guarantee" of a successful hire.

Veterans contemplating an M.B.A. should check out the Military to Business blog by a newly minted Harvard Business School grad that I've featured numerous times as a B-School Buzz blogger on my website. His blog has so much useful information for veterans that it's hard to pinpoint a single entry to highlight. However, a post from December provides a financial breakdown that should reassure anyone fearing astronomical debt should he or she forego the workforce after leaving active duty. According to Military to Business's calculations, most veterans end up with only $10,000 to $50,000 in total debt after two years.

"This reinforces the message I tell a lot of people who write in and are concerned with losing their steady military income," the Military to Business blogger writes. "Fear no more. The economics of a military person going to a top business school is extremely favorable. You can make more your first 3-4 years after business school than you probably would in the military over the next 10 years." From a purely economic point of view, he stresses, it's a net positive financial decision.